UK chancellor Rishi Sunak’s summer statement included a welcome £2bn for insulating homes. Thermal energy for industry and heating buildings accounts for nearly 40% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so improving the efficiency of buildings is important for reducing the amount of energy consumed and associated carbon. But attention must be paid to the decarbonisation of heat itself, writes Ross Ramsay, senior consultant at Mott MacDonald and project manager for the Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition
Combating COVID-19 is front-of-mind right now, but avoiding severe climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero is one of the biggest challenges society faces in the next 30 years. The 2020s are a critical decade. In 2019 the UK government committed to becoming net-zero by 2050. Delay in making real progress will jeopardise the UK’s s ability to achieve that commitment.
Achieving net-zero consists of many challenges, among the toughest of which is the decarbonisation of heat. This is the subject of a new report produced by Mott MacDonald with a wider working group as part of the Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition.
Heating and cooling our homes and workplaces, hot water and cooking account for more than 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Almost 15% arise from heat for industrial processes. Most of the UK’s heat is supplied by burning natural gas.
There are three possible routes to decarbonising heat explored in the report: replacement of gas with green electricity (from renewables, nuclear, and possibly bioenergy with carbon capture and underground storage – CCUS); widespread use of hydrogen (from natural gas with CCUS, and electrolysis of water using green electricity); and a hybrid of both electricity and hydrogen. Whichever route is ultimately proved to be the best for the UK, investment will be required in green electricity generation and distribution infrastructure.
Emerging technologies including hydrogen production, CCUS, advanced modular reactors, high voltage direct current electricity transmission and smart grids will need to be developed and scaled-up. Buildings and industry will need to become much more energy efficient to reduce the scale of demand. And energy users will have to be encouraged to change their behaviours, to reduce consumption.
The government needs to show leadership and act with urgency in bringing about a co-ordinated approach. Our report makes detailed recommendations about how this can be done and outlines key milestones and dependencies in a number of routemaps to achieve net-zero by 2050.
Many of the recommendations will lead directly to the creation of green jobs in:
- energy efficiency retrofitting – we believe that energy efficiency in buildings should be elevated to the scale of a national infrastructure programme in its own right.
- heat pumps – there is a fantastic opportunity to pursue the low-regret installation of heat pumps and hybrid heat pumps, which convert low grade heat into energy that can be used to heat buildings. National, regional, and local initiatives could be brought forward to accelerate heat pump deployment within the next five.
- new energy sources – the UK should fast-track the development and demonstration of emerging technologies including novel renewables, hydrogen generation, bioenergy, and advanced nuclear reactors.
- radical upscaling of wind and solar photovoltaic electricity generation.
This programme of activities could be kick-started quickly, would provide employment opportunities and would give the UK an international advantage as an early adopter, paving the way for potential exports of skills and services.
The Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition represents the best of British industry and innovation, with a wealth of experience in designing, building and operating infrastructure. Each of the member organisations has shown individual leadership on net-zero, and collectively, we have shown a commitment to furthering both thinking and action on this vital agenda. We’re looking to deliver distinct, bespoke projects that help government and industry understand how net-zero can happen.
We now need the government to show leadership and co-ordination in tackling net-zero. If we succeed in addressing the issue the UK will not only be meeting its commitment, but showing international leadership and developing the technology, skills and know-how to benefit others around the world in meeting their heat decarbonisation challenges.